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Luther Perkins
Birth name Luther Monroe Perkins
Born January 8, 1928(1928-01-08)
Memphis, Tennessee
Died August 5, 1968 (aged 40)
Nashville, Tennessee
Genres Country, rockabilly
Occupations Musician
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1954-1968
Associated acts Johnny Cash, Tennessee Three
Notable instruments
Fender Esquire

Luther Monroe Perkins (January 8, 1928 – August 5, 1968) was an American country music guitarist renowned for his work as a member of the Tennessee Three with Johnny Cash and their "boom-chicka" rhythmic style.


Early life

Luther Perkins was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 8, 1928. His family soon moved to Como, Mississippi, where it is assumed that Perkins grew up. Perkins's brother, Thomas Wayne Perkins, had a briefly successful career in music. As a young boy, Perkins had a dream that there was a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end buried somewhere nearby. When he woke up, he believed that he knew the area in which the pot of gold was. He set out to the location with a shovel and upon arrival, began digging. Much to Perkins' disappointment, all that was found was some old bricks. Perkins took the bricks and sold them to a local construction company for two cents apiece and with the money earned bought his first guitar.

Humble beginnings

Perkins returned to Memphis in the Summer of 1953 and got a job as an auto mechanic at Automobile Sales. A few days after beginning work, a fellow mechanic and coworker named Marshall Grant introduced himself.

At that point, Grant and another mechanic named A. W. "Red" Kernodle were getting together along with some friends to play music. Grant played the Guitar and Red the Steel Guitar. When Grant discovered that Perkins played as well, he invited Luther to their get-togethers. Grant would later say, "As it turned out, he (Perkins) was the best musician of us all."

One day Grant and Perkins took their guitars to work so that when they didn't have anything else to do they'd be able to sit in the dressing room and play guitar. Fellow mechanic Roy Cash often joined them and listened. One day as they were heading back to work Roy said to Marshall, "You know, Marshall, I got a brother in the service , and he plays guitar, too, and he sings just like Hank Snow." Grant then said, "Well, we need him, because we really need a singer."

Roy continued to tell the two about his brother, named J.R. One day in mid-July 1954 he told the two that he'd was going to pick up his newly discharged brother from the bus station. Roy then introduced J.R. to Marshall and Luther. The first thing J.R. said to Luther was, "I understand you do a little pickin', too." Luther nodded and said, "Yeah, Marshall and I get together, and another buddy here, Red Kernodle, plays steel guitar a little bit. We get together and we have a lot of fun. If you want to join us sometime, well, feel free, 'cause we really need a singer, and I understand that you sing like Hank Snow." J.R. laughed and said, "Well I try to sing a little bit, but I don't know who I sound like."

One night in August 1954 the four of them, Luther, Red, J.R., and Marshall, decided to get one Friday night and do some picking. Marshall invited all of them and their wives to his house. The men sat down in the den and got their instruments tuned. Marshall would later mention that Luther, "...had a nice instrument." They then played some Gospel songs, as that was what they had always listened to and loved.

Marshall said the following concerning Luther's playing at that point: "You could tell Luther wanted to play some lead, but he didn't know much about it. As a result, John, Luther, and I all ended up playing rhythm."

All of them had fun. They decided to hold another Friday picking session. It soon became routine.

After listening to Elvis Presley's first record, one of the four of them said, "Maybe we ought to try and do that." Marshall said, "Guys, that would be great, but we can't go in for an audition with three rhythm guitars and a steel. I mean, we're gonna have to change up our instruments somehow or other if we're gonna try to do that. We're not the greatest thing in the world anyhow, and to go in there with this instrumentation, we'll probably get laughed out of the studio."

After thinking about it for awhile Luther said, "Hey, I know where I can borrow an electric guitar." Marshall then said, " Well, if you get an electric guitar, and, Johny you do most of the lead singin, I'll get a bass and see if I can learn to play that sucker. That way we'll have a lead guitar, a rhythm guitar, a bass, and a steel guitar, and we'd be balanced out pretty good."

The following Monday, Luther went to the O. K. Houck Music Store and had Sid Lapworth (the manager) loan Luther a Fender Esquire. Luther said, "You know Marshall, he's got a big ol' upright bass you might be interested in." Sure enough, Marshall went and bought the bass for $25.

That evening J.R., Marshall, and Luther (Red didn't show up) went to Marshall's house in an attempt to get everything situated. Marshall said this of Luther's guitar: "The guitar was pretty much a pile of junk. Both the volume and tone controls were wired wide open, so Luther had to set the volume and tone on the amplifier (a Sears Silvertone, owned by Marshall). The trio had no idea how to tune the bass so they left it out for that night. Luther played his electric and J.R. and Marshall played their acoustics.

The following morning Marshall talked to Car Salesmen Gene Steel who had a band and asked him how to tune a bass. Gene didn't actually know, so he had his bass player write instructions for them and got them to Grant and Perkins by the next day.

That evening the three of them got together again at Marshall's house. They then tackled the bass. After tuning it they went through the notes on each of the four strings and marked each A,B,C,D,E,F and G note on the Bass's fretboard with a piece of adhesive tape.

They decided to try to play something, just a straight E chord. It was so ridiculous and funny to them that they had to stop. J.R. then asked if he could use Marshall's D-28 Martin because his guitar was not very good. Marshall was more than happy to allow him to do so.

Marshall then said that they should try something in E again, only a little bit faster. Luther, having his guitar on full volume, laid the palm of his hand across the strings to muffle them while he played.

Grant said the following about the evening: "We sat there playing in E and didn't try to change chords. Luther played tick-tack-tick-tack on his muffled guitar, I'd hit the string and slap, hit the strings and slap; and John played this awkward lick (he always played that lick-never got rid of it, never tired to). We had a lot of fun and did a lot of laughing, and before the night was over, we could play some simple songs that had just two of three chord changes. We were very encouraged, but we still didn't like the way we sounded, didn't like it at all. However we found out real quick that it was the only thing we could do. After all, we were two mechanics and an appliance salesman playing unfamiliar instruments."

Grant went on to say this about Luther's sound (as well as theirs) early on: "Luther was now playing an electric guitar, but he'd never played lead or even kicked off a song. He was still playing rhythm, but come to find out, that little tick-tack-tick-tack riff he did when he miffled the strings consisted of exactly the same notes I was hitting on the bass.

That simply tick-tack-tick-tack, back and forth, would become very important as time went on. We didn't know it then, but before long it would become our trademark. In fact, the sound we were developing would soon be know around the world as 'Johnny Cash and his boom-chicka-boom sound" but on that first night, we were just trying to learn to play our new instruments well enough so we could have more fun."

The trio (on occasion supplemented by Red) continued jamming and honing their instruments for some time, to the point that they could play songs with 3 or 4 chords. They decided to go through with their plan. According to Grant, they showed up one day at Sun Studios, unannounced. They walked in, introduced themselves, and told Sam Phillips that they wanted to cut a record. Sam said, "well, come on down sometime and bring your instruments, and let's hear what you have to offer."

They came up with some gospel songs that they thought about recording. They decided to go with the song, "I Was There When It Happened (and so I guess I Ought to Know)" to fill one side of the record. They got in touch with Sam and scheduled an appointment a few days later. When the day came, Luther, Marshall, and Red left the garage and went over to the studio. John was already there. They began tuning. Red was extremely nervous, to the point that he couldn't properly tune the steel. He set the steel down and said, "I can't do anything but hold y'all back. I'm going back down to the shop and go back to work."

A few minutes later, John, Marshall, and Luther were ready to go. The studio was a small place with a limited number of microphones and a small mixing board. They used only three microphones. John had one for his vocals and one for his guitar. Sam placed another in front of Luther. He positioned Luther's amp farther back and kept Marshall bass close, so they could get a good mix.

They played the song the whole way through and Sam came into the studio. He had a slight smile on his face. He came and readjusted the microphone, told Marshall to play the bass louder, and then had the trio do the song over again.

Sam came back into the studio and said, "Guys, let me tell you something. We can't sell gospel music, so we can't record a gospel song. However, there's something about you guys that's intriguing, that I'm very interested in. You're not like the everyday run-of-the-mill people that come in here. I'd like you to come up with an original song, whatever that may be, and come back in here and see me."

A week or so went by. John came into the shop and told Luther and Marshall about a poem he'd written in Germany called "Hey Porter". They got together the next Saturday and added chords and a melody to it. Then they worked on the lead guitar parts.

Marshall said this of it, "...we started working on an intro for Luther and a break that he could play. This was going to be a problem, to say the least, because, with all due respect to Luther, at the time he just didn't have the musical skills to do it."

"The intro we came up with was pretty simple, as far as intros go. It was just us hitting a note, stretching it out, and then getting right into the the song. When it came to the break, Luther never did try to play the melody line, because he knew he couldn't, and that's where the work really started."

"We got together about three more time, and Luther began to put together a break for the song. He did it note by note. He'd play a little bit, then start over and add another note, then start over and add another note... This went on literally for hours."

By September 1954, and after about four months of regular picking sessions, they played their first public performance at Galloway United Methodist Church on the corner of Cooper and Young in Memphis (now Lifelink Memphis). Due to fading memories and virtually no documentary evidence, the details about this performance are unclear. All agree that the performance was indeed at Galloway, but the nature of the performance differs between Marshall and Johnny. Both agree that they were invited to perform by a neighbor of either Luther or Marshall who had attended one of their regular picking sessions and asked if they would be willing to do the concert. Allen Caldwell, who was a member of Galloway at this time and still is to this day, claims he was the one who invited the trio. Johnny says they performed as a part of the church's regular Sunday service. Marshall recalls a mid-week basement performance, drawing no more than ten elderly ladies. He recalls they set up in about five minutes, near an electric outlet, so Luther could plug his amplifier in, and played "everything they knew" for about twenty minutes. Also note, Marshall's recollection is more consistent, while Johnny's seems to vary among different accounts.

The band's second performance was a fund-raiser at Bob's Barbecue on Summer Avenue. The cause was for a friend of Marshall's, Ralph Johnson, who had been injured in a powerboat collision while racing in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Johnson's racing buddies got together and organized the event to help pay for the expensive hospital bills.

The third public performance could be dubbed their first "professional" performance. The trio got paid fifty dollars by the Hurst Motor Company (next to Automobile Sales) to cruise up and down Union Avenue in the back of a flatbed truck all Saturday afternoon. There was no means of electricity for Luther's amp, so Luther and Johnny played rhythm while Marshall played bass. Marshall, looking back, said , "We were on the move all the time. Nobody paid any attention to us. Nobody knew who we were. We laughed about it. But we got paid."

Touring with Johnny

As with most rock 'n' roll artists of the time, the band primarily toured the South Eastern United States, Going only as far west as Texas, and only as far north as West Virginia. The boys were soon putting many, many miles on Johnny's Plymouth. Marshall later said that if he and Luther had not been auto mechanics, they would not have got half the miles out of that car. Johnny traded the car with one of his in-laws and they never had any major trouble with automobiles again.

Soon the trio was playing professionally more than they were working back home in Memphis. Johnny had quit his job as soon as he signed onto Sun. Luther and Marshall each took a six month leave of absence. They never returned.

With the time to do larger tours, the trio encountered a new enemy: sleep. They drove late at night, exhausted. Johnny and many of the tour people started taking amphetamines to stay alert and prepared for driving. It is not known whether or not Luther took any kind of stimulant while on tour, but it is unlikely. Marshall and Johnny often said that Luther was a clean slate except for his smoking habit. In Marshall Grant's book, he states that Luther used amphetamines as did Johnny Cash, but that Luther did not do all of the "crazy" things like Cash. He stayed in control. However, in a discussion at the Johnny Cash Festival in October 2008, Grant stated that Luther and he did not use "those dirty little pills" like Johnny Cash did.

Johnny's problems grew when he and June Carter began having feelings for each other in the late 50's or early 60's. Luther's and Marshall's problems grew too, because they had to make sure Johnny did not wind up hurting or killing himself. Things got even more hectic when Johnny switched from Sun to Columbia Records in 1958 and drummer W.S. Holland joined the group in 1960.

When Johnny was working in Nashville, he stayed with Gene Ferguson and his family, but there were times when Cash's behavior was so unacceptable that Ferguson would make him stay in the office downstairs. There were a couple of times when Gene went to wake him and he did not respond, and Ferguson could not feel a heartbeat. Once, Ferguson called Luther to ask him what he should do, and Luther said, "Well, he'll either wake up or die."

When asked about Luther's feelings towards Johnny Cash's drug problem, Marshall and Luther's wife both stated that it was not like Luther to turn his back on anyone, including someone who was having problems like Cash was having. Johnny Western once said that Luther seemed to almost be amazed, if not amused, by the many weird things Cash would do during his mood altering days though he never encouraged the troubled singer. According to Marshall, Luther worried about Cash but realized that a man can only help himself when and if he wants to be helped and always remained supportive.

In Johnny Cash: The Autobiography, Johnny recalls "In my very worst times, Luther's house was one of the ports in my storm. I could go over there at any hour of the night and, and Luther and his wife, Margie, would get up and make coffee, listen to me, and try to make me feel okay."

During the tours, the guys would often pull pranks on each other and at the hotels in which they stayed. One time John and Marshall had cut a hole through the walls of two rooms because they didn't have a door. Luther looked at the 'doorway' and said, "Well I'll be damned, I'll just be damned." One time before a show in 1962, Cash found an old dog on the streets that was about as dirty as anything he had ever seen. Cash somehow got the dog into Luther's room while he was out and returning to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Cash proceeded to order room service for the dog (about two dozen hamburgers) before giving him a bath. After the damp dog gobbled up the burgers Cash pulled down the sheets so the dog could get into bed and sleep. When Luther got back to his room he saw the dog sleeping there in a saturated bed and went about sleeping right alongside the dog for the night, never once griping the next morning about sharing his room and bed with the dog. Rayovac Batteries had a big show called the Rayovac Country and Western Road Show. Howard Crockett and guitarist Cecil Manco played the road show along with Johnny Cash, Bob Luman and others. After the show, Marshall, Luther, and Cecil were playing cards in the motel. Johnny was in the other room trying to sleep. Apparently the three were noisy and Johnny hollered, "Hey you all - knock it off!" They said "Just one more hand Johnny and we'll be through." The next sound they heard was a WHAM!!!!!! Johnny shot the light out with a real pistol! They quit right then and went to bed. Next day he got up and paid for the hole in the ceiling.

In 1967, John finally cleaned up his act with help from June, Luther, Marshall, and a local doctor. Luther helped with Johnny's detoxification and they were soon touring again.

Live at Folsom Prison

The highest point in Luther's career occurred on January 13, 1968. On that day Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three, along with the Statler Brothers and (unrelated) Carl Perkins performed two shows live at Folsom Prison at Repressa, California. Both shows were taped.

The album is the clearest example of Luther's guitar work in existence. Luther's last recordings were made shortly afterward, on "The Holy Land" album.

Final days

In the spring of 1968, Luther and Margie began to make plans to buy a new split-level house overlooking Old Hickory Lake on Riverwood Drive in Hendersonville, Tennessee, not too far from Johnny's house. However, the Johnny Cash Show had a tour booked in England from May 4-19, delaying the plans. Meanwhile in England, the news of the tour swept through the country and his concerts drew phenomenal crowds and press attention. Along with an already hectic schedule, they had to make it to London on May 10 for a taping which would broadcast live on the BBC, consisting of two sets, as did most of these concerts. Immediately following the taping, Luther came down with a serious case of bronchitis. The condition continued to worsen and he eventually had to be hospitalized. The tour would go on without him, with Carl Perkins filling Luther's duties as lead guitarist. Carl had been with the Cash Show for a few years and knew Luther's licks very well. However, the British press made constant note of Luther's absence from the show and expressed how disappointed the fans were that Luther could not play. When the tour was over and the Cash troupe returned back to the United States, Luther was still receiving medical care in a London hospital. A few days later, he was released and was able to return home.

However, when he returned home, he was exhausted. Doctors predicted it would take several months for Luther to regain his strength and energy fully. They recommended that he take a break from touring and rest for a few months. They also said he should strongly consider quitting his cigarette habit. In spite of the doctors recommendations, Luther went ahead and moved into his new split-level home and completed a series of numerous shows that were booked during the summer coinciding with the release of "At Folsom Prison", taped a television show with Cash and the Tennessee Three called The Smothers Brothers Hour (July 25-28) that would be broadcast on August 28, 1968, and during July 29-31, wrapped up a grueling three days of recording at Columbia Studios in Nashville for "The Holy Land" album. By the end of July, everyone noticed how drained and exhausted Luther was. He kept telling everyone how much he wanted to sleep.

As he drove home on from the final day, July 31,of the recording sessions, he talked with Cash about how anxious he was to be able to go home and relax by doing a little fishing and catching up on some much needed sleep. The both discussed a show at Carnegie Hall that manager Saul Holiff was trying to book for October and also returning back to the UK for a second tour there which would have them playing the famed London Palladium, which Columbia planned on recording for a future album release. Luther was genuinely excited about it all - especially plans by either CBS or ABC for a possible television series in the spring of 1969 and an upcoming documentary that was planned to begin filming later in August - but his need for serious rest was more than noticeable over the last month.

However, a final July 28, 1968 concert at Buck Lake Ranch in Angola, Indiana would be the last time a live audience would hear the legendary sound of Luther Perkins on the guitar.


In the early evening hours of Friday, August 2, the Columbia representative and good friend of Luther, Gene Ferguson, called the Perkins home in Hendersonville, Tennessee to ask if Luther would be joining their regular Friday-night card game, usually extending well into the next morning. Luther always participated in the card game, but this time turned down Ferguson's invitation, saying he was really tired and wanted to finish filling out some tax papers he needed to submit dealing with a publishing company/artist agency that he planned on starting in Nashville to help promote undiscovered local talent. This would give performers the same break he was given back in 1955, and one artist he planned to work with was Columbia Studios janitor, Kris Kristofferson, who was also very close to Luther. Ferguson was unable to persuade Luther to come over. He later stated that even though he knew that the last few months had been draining for Luther, he regrets not pushing the issue harder, as Luther usually gave in when card-playing was involved.

The next morning, Saturday August 3, Luther awoke much earlier than usual, probably between 3:00-5:00 a.m. Careful not to wake Margie or Kathy, he first went out back and walked down to the banks of Old Hickory Lake. Sometime earlier, Luther ran a trotline out into the lake, hoping to take advantage of the great catfishing the lake has to offer. When he checked the line, he found a catfish awaiting him. He then cleaned it and brought it back up to the house. When he got inside, he laid it in the kitchen sink with a note he had written to Margie saying, "See I told you I could catch a catfish."[citation needed]

Luther then sat down at the kitchen table and began to fill out the tax papers. At some point within the next hour or so, he decided to take a break. He lit up a cigarette and went into the den and laid down on the couch. He drifted off to sleep with that cigarette in his hand. When the burning cigarette hit the floor, the room was filled with smoke and flames within minutes. Luther woke and attempted to flee to the sliding glass doors which led outside, but was overcome by the smoke and heat and collapsed on the floor.

A little before 6:00 a.m., his little daughter Kathy found most of the den and kitchen in flames. She saw her dad lying on the floor, propped up against the sliding glass doors, surrounded by smoke and flames. Immediately, she went to wake Margie who called the fire department. She was then met by a neighbor, who with Margie's help, dragged Luther's body from the blaze that was consuming the den.

Hendersonville Fire Department received a call about a house fire on Riverwood Drive at 6:05 a.m. The blaze, resulting in $30,000-40,000 of damage, was extinguished within twenty-five minutes. Meanwhile, Luther was rushed to ICU at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, unconscious with severe second and third degree burns covering almost fifty percent of his body. Margie called Johnny Cash as soon as she could. Cash came down with Marshall Grant and Carl Perkins. They were told by doctors that Luther seemed to be doing just fine, though he was still unconscious. Cash later stated that when they went into the room to see Luther, it immediately hit him that his friend was not going to wake up.[citation needed]

The Saturday night Grand Ole Opry show had a moment of prayer for Luther before the regular show.[citation needed]

Perkins never regained consciousness and died at the age of 40 as a result of severe burns and smoke inhalation. He was buried on August 7 at Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee. His pallbearers were Marshall Grant, WS Holland, Roger Miller, Billy Graves, Gene Ferguson, Charlie Dick (Patsy Cline's husband), and Johnny Cash. At the burial, before Luther's casket was lowered into the ground, the mourners stepped back to let Cash have a moment by himself. Tommy Cash recalls over-hearing Johnny say, "Thank you Luther."[citation needed]

Awards and recognitions

Perkins' pioneering contribution to the rockabilly genre has been recognized in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Guitar style

Luther was known for his simple and effective guitar style. For the verses of songs Luther would simply put his hand on the bridge of his guitar to muffle the strings while playing chords with alternating bassline. Luther enjoyed using slapback delay and later spring reverb on his guitars to get a distinct 'cavernous/water dropping' like sound.

Luther was extremely partial to Fender and its guitars. He had several Esquires, Jaguars, and a Jazzmaster. He used Fender Amplifiers which included The Fender Champ, the Fender Bassman, The Fender Pro, The Fender concert, and finally the Fender Blackface Super Reverb.

Walk the Line

In the 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash, Luther is portrayed by Dan John Miller. He is shown exactly as he was in real life. Miller copied many of Perkins's characteristics such as his simple way of talking and his extreme concentration and emotionlessness onstage.

The cause of Perkins' death is alluded to in the film. On a late night bus ride to a performance, Cash passes Perkins asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth and puts it out.

Also in the film he is seen playing a Fender Telecaster. This is inaccurate, for Perkins was never known to use or own a Telecaster, but a Fender Esquire, which has the same body shape but only one pick-up, as opposed to the Telecaster's two.


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